Patrick French reviews Yasmin Khan's new book, in The Guardian (Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty):
Yasmin Khan reminds us at the start of her book that “Britain did not fight the second world war, the British empire did”. Remembrance is a great British virtue. Whether it’s a Spitfire display, replica red poppies streaming out of the Tower of London or a commemoration of the battle of Waterloo, we know how to do it.Winston Churchill’s idea of a plucky island race standing firm against tyranny in two world wars continues to resonate. Troops from Africa, the West Indies, India and beyond are historically more awkward: they tend to be seen as an adjunct to the main event, although Britain’s success in both wars came from the logistics and manpower derived from its massive empire. At last year’s centenary of 1914, the government avoided the E-word and called such people “Commonwealth soldiers”, although the Commonwealth did not exist at the time. In South Asia, too, the 2.5 million volunteers who served in the second world war are forgotten, since they do not fit easily with the nationalist narrative of independence attained by non-violent resistance.
In The Raj at War, Khan sets herself a tough task: to recover the weft of India during the second world war and tell a story not only of servicemen but of nurses, bearers, political activists, road builders, seamen, interned central European Jews, schoolgirls, Bengali famine victims, enlightened officials, 22,000 African American GIs and even destitute Kazakhs, Iraqi beggars and orphaned Polish children who were escaping upheavals elsewhere. “At many stops on their way to Bombay, local people greeted the children at the stations, treating them with sweets, fruits, cold drinks and toys,” reported the wife of the Polish consul general.
Telling history from the bottom up is difficult, since those in extremis rarely record their experiences; it is easier to come in from the sides than from below, and use the diaries and letters of Europeans or members of India’s Anglophone elite.